Vetri, our very best

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Retained 4 bells.

My first instinct is to freeze my favorite restaurants in amber. And at nearly 14-year-old Vetri, my posterity list of dishes is long, from the sublime spinach gnocchi to the wood-smoked goat and truffled-onion crepe, to the townhouse ambience that captures an extraordinary intimacy of special-occasion alta cucina with down-to-earth sincerity.

Our restaurant scene hasn't been the same since chef Marc Vetri first showed us the beauty of his elevated, rustic Italian cooking. But the fact that Vetri refuses to rest on his classics is at the heart of why he remains a singular leader for his generation and why his namesake restaurant remains our very best.

Vetri is always improving his dining room, whether it's the exquisite new Venetian chandeliers or the extra space from a removed table that lowered the seat total to 30. But no change was bigger than a decision last year to jettison a la carte dining in favor of a $135 prix-fixe menu.

Now with his more casual restaurants (Osteria and Amis) to sate the urge for more affordable Vetri meals, the mother ship has evolved into the gastronomic blowout it was destined to be. After two dinners, I'm convinced the move was brilliant: Vetri's kitchen now cooks with the brio of a culinary spirit unchained.

Jeff Benjamin's personable service staff begins from the moment you arrive, with a sparkling prosecco to accompany chef de cuisine Adam Leonti's "stuzzichini" nibbles, including pastry squares of vegetable torta, smoky-spicy bites of foie gras pastrami, and an array of house-cured delights, including a spreadable young salami that only stoked my hunger.

And then the plates begin, a dozen or more flowing to the table, each more gorgeous and inventive than the last. Requests and classics get their due. But the new flavors were stunning.

One night brought mare caldo, a brothy tableau of pristinely cooked mixed seafood that was like a window into the ocean. Another meal brought a T-bone of antelope, roasted Fiorentina-style, then sliced into a reduction of Amarone that echoed the ruby meat's gamy sweetness.

The pastas, as always, were magical. Bonbonlike twists held butternut squash "caramelle." Porcini-tinted pappardelle tumbled with braised rabbit and peaches. Squid-ink linguine as black as licorice ropes tangled with Dungeness crab beneath oceanic scoops of creamy sea urchin. A "doppio" ravioli brought pasta with double-barreled pockets, tender oxtail running parallel to a channel of hot Taleggio.

Take home leftovers, if you wish. But save room for dessert, especially the emerald gush of warm pistachio flan. And let Vetri's skilled sommeliers help pair some extraordinary wines with your meal, from the unusual "orange" wines of Friuli to a Pride cab from California (surprise!) for the antelope. Try half-sized pours of the lavish pairings ($90-$135 a person), for some restraint.

Either way, the bill will be astounding: Expect $250 a head with tip, tax, and some wine. But few places in America, let alone Philadelphia, can match Vetri's combination of unique flavors and personalized sophistication. If you can afford the fee, it's worth it.

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